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The Hindu Notes for 28th August 2018

Rescue, relief and renewal

The Kerala model of disaster management shows how we can rethink our style of governance

Disasters as narratives tend to follow a predictable grid. They begin with a moment of scandal or crisis, move to limited period of action, and slowly fade into indifference. People get tired of consuming disasters and move on. Policy echoes the usual clichés and fades away, only the victim continues to struggle fighting to recover her sense of citizenship. But disasters as narrative clichés eluded the Kerala floods of 2018.

Leading from the front

The Kerala flood has been huge in scale and almost unprecedented. One has to go back to 1924 to think of a flood of a similar scale. Yet this is one disaster that has avoided exaggeration. A wise observer, in fact, said, “This is a flood that has avoided sentimentality. The response is realistic and pragmatic. Citizens have moved into action and yet they knew the limits of aid and relief.” Central to this, in style and leadership, is the role of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who has been a hands-on administrator. Interestingly, he has set a style emphasising concern with no self-denial, a clear-cut statement of the scale of the problem and the long-range effort required to address it.

Mr. Vijayan has no time for blame games or electoral politics. His even-tempered handling of the Centre and the southern States reflects a maturing of leadership. By avoiding nitpicking, he has brought a new maturity to the discourse on floods. There are no blame games but he is clear about the chain of responsibility. He has signalled that his concern is with people first, regardless of ideology or religion. He has made sure that relief is not parochialised or seen through a party lens. He might be of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), but he has convincingly acted as the Chief Minister of Kerala. All the malignant rumours spread by the right wing asking people to deny aid to Kerala as it helps missionaries leave him cold. He is clear about focus and priority, clear that this is not the time for electoral bickering or factional politics.

The very style of Mr. Vijayan’s presence has opened up the discourse. The debate now is not a short-run narrative about relief, but a larger discussion on the flood as a metaphor for Kerala’s development. People are listening to each other. One saw it when Madhav Gadgil, our leading ecologist, argued that heroism is not enough. The Kerala flood has to be read also as a man-made disaster. It could not be dismissed as originating in excess rain.

Mr. Gadgil, people realised, was raising a set of long-range questions about the nature of Kerala’s development which both the CPI(M) and the Congress have been party to. The general response was open-ended because the audience realised that he was not arguing for his report. What he was looking at is the mitigation of future suffering. Politics and science met to create this mutual responsibility for the future.

The power of the narrative is that timelines were established, and timelines also defined the nature of responsibility. The quality of the debate, in fact, borrowed from the tenor of the response of the people. Kerala responded with dignity and courage. Over a million people went to temporary camps, realising that their houses had been destroyed or damaged.

A social solidarity

The responses, especially of older people, added to the dignity of the discourse. Kerala did not behave like a victim population. It insisted on agency and created the ground for citizenship. Keralites outside the State responded immediately; and between the style of governance and the spirit of voluntarism, Kerala created a social solidarity which was almost unique. People owned up to each other and voluntarism added a powerful sense of competence and sympathy. It is this exemplary notion of citizenship that set the contours of the debate. The survivor and the victim insisted that they are citizens, and this elaboration of citizenship in disaster situations makes Kerala an exemplar of a democratic imagination. Suffering found a language beyond the political economy, but suffering also found a long-range locus in ecology and development. The flood became not an act of god or nature, but a social event to be analysed sociologically.

Even if the Centre responds locally and parochially, the Government of Kerala realised that in the long run, floods not only challenge the democratic imagination but ask us to reconsider the future of federation. When there were suggestions from West Asia of a grant beyond the Centre’s dreams, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime at the Centre refused. The question was whether old dreams of statist autonomy could be questioned or does foreign aid still carry that touch of stigma. Sadly, the BJP goes ecstatic over NRIs in Silicon Valley but understands little of their role in the political economies of the Gulf states.

But more than state, what was renewed was a sense of the social. There was a recognition that the floods have erased the Kerala of the last phase. A new society has to be invented to replace the old. The standard disaster narrative of rescue, relief, rehabilitation is yielding to rescue, relief, reconstruction. Mr. Vijayan is clear that a new Kerala reflecting on ecology and development has to be invented. The old resilience has to be backed by a new infrastructural sustainability. As Mr. Vijayan himself said, during the 1924 flood there was one dam, “while today there are a total of 82 dams, including 42 major ones”. New forms of control and sustainability have to be invented. Behind it there was a sense that governments must use disasters as moments of paradigmatic change. To build infrastructure of the kind Kerala need will take at least two decades. A flood becomes an initiation to rethink democracy and governance, reconnecting it to issues of environment, culture and livelihood.

Yet there are issues still to be worked out. Mr. Gadgil is right. One needs an ecological insight both as a moral and economic imagination. Nature has to be rethought as an act of trusteeship. Its force and fury have to be understood. A survivor was cited as claiming that the river has reclaimed its lost self. Maybe it is time Kerala, which combines traditional and global in creative ways, rethinks its lost ecological self beyond consumption and the amnesia of development.

Learning to remember

Finally, one has to emphasise the biggest danger, one of the greatest faults of the old model of disasters. For all their scale and the scandals of new ideas they raise, disasters as policy memory are forgotten too easily. Old lessons are never learnt and new ones also forgotten. A disaster as a narrative must possess the quality of storytelling. Like a fable it must be repeated again and again, retold and rethought. The storyteller and the policy-maker must weave a new tapestry where the floods renew and rebuild a new Kerala. Talk of suffering has be translated into new models of justice. One hopes Kerala creates new panchayats of the mind to work on this problem.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination

Ways to read the Constitution

‘Sabarimala’ is a test case for freedom of religion, women’s rights and also constitutional interpretation

The arguments before the Supreme Court around the entry of women of a certain age to the Sabarimala temple in Kerala raise issues about religious freedom, gender equality and the right of women to worship. The petitioners have argued that discrimination based on biological reasons is not permissible going by the constitutional scheme. They maintain that due to the current exclusion, the right of women to worship the deity, Ayyappa, is violated.

On the other side, the Devaswom Board and others in support of the ban have cited it as an age-old custom. It forms a part of ‘essential religious practice’ of worshippers under Article 25 of the Constitution. It was also urged that matters such as who can or cannot enter the temple are covered under the rights to administer and manage religious institutions, under Article 26.

A specific argument made in the court, based on Article 17, triggers interesting thoughts on constitutional interpretation. In support of the petitioners, it was argued that the exclusion is a form of ‘untouchability’ since the exclusion is solely based on notions of purity and impurity. But this argument was resisted on the contention that the prohibition of untouchability was historically intended only to protect the interests of the backward classes. The claim is that the makers of the Constitution never envisioned including women within the ambit of untouchability.

Two approaches

The two arguments reflect the two approaches to reading the Constitution. The first is the ‘original intent’ approach which is based on the intent of the framers of the Constitution when they drafted the text. For example, an originalist will adopt a certain understanding of a constitutional right — say, the right to same-sex relationships under the right to liberty promised under Article 21 only if she is convinced that the drafters intended that. She may argue that the framers never thought of such a situation and, therefore, a same-sex couple cannot have a constitutional right under Article 21.

In fact, a similar argument has been made in the debates in India on homosexuality. Article 15 enjoins the state from discriminating on grounds such as religion, caste and sex. By relying on the originalist approach, it was asserted that the makers of the Constitution meant the word ‘sex’ under Article 15 only in the binary sense of ‘male and female’.

Over time, originalism as a method of constitutional interpretation has been subject to serious criticism for being too rigid and inflexible. In B.C Motor Vehicle Reference (1985), the Canadian Supreme Court, while rejecting originalism, said that such a method would mean that “...the rights, freedoms and values embodied in the Charter in effect become frozen in time to the moment of adoption with little or no possibility of growth, development and adjustment to changing societal needs.”

The second approach — the ‘living tree’ doctrine — is very prominent in Canadian jurisprudence. It involves understanding the Constitution to be an evolving and organic instrument. For the living tree theorists, it matters little what the intentions were at the time of Constitution making. What matters the most is how the Constitution can be interpreted to contain rights in their broadest realm. The moral reading of the Constitution, propounded by Ronald Dworkin, also complements the living tree approach. Dworkin says in Freedom’s Law that “according to the moral reading, these clauses must be understood in the way their language most naturally suggests: they refer to abstract moral principles and incorporate these by reference, as limits on government’s power.”

A specific acknowledgment

Certain observations about the abolition clause are important. Article 17 is emphatic in its wording: “Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.” It is peculiar since it abolishes a social practice in any form. All the other provisions in the same chapter lay down substantive fundamental rights.

In spite of the specific equality and anti-discrimination guarantees in the Constitution, Article 17 is inserted to specifically acknowledge and remove the social stigma associated with certain castes. It was enacted in an attempt to eradicate historical inequality. V.I. Muniswamy Pillai said in the Constituent Assembly that “the great thing that this Constitution brings to notice, not only to this country but to the whole world is the abolition of untouchability.”

The ‘living tree’ approach — being an alternative and a finer reading of the Constitution — supports a broader interpretation of Article 17. Now, even if the framers of the Constitution intended this provision to address a specific category of discrimination, what prevents the constitutional court from adopting an interpretation to include women under Article 17?

Women have been kept out of Sabarimala because of menstruation. As a distinct class, they are being discriminated against. If certain castes are considered ‘impure’ because of their social status, menstruating women are considered to be so because of their gender. The criteria are different but the effect of exclusion is common. It seems that such an interpretation does not do any violence to the language and content of Article 17, but only emancipates it.

In Living Originalism in India: Our Law and Comparative Constitutional Law (2013), Sujit Choudhry argues that untouchability and the exclusion of the homosexuals are comparable. He says that “the treatment which homosexuals experience today is similar in kind to that which ‘untouchables’ experienced and which prompted the adoption of Article 17, in that the treatment of homosexuals likewise flows from their social status.” This is a case where discrimination is based solely on sexual orientation.

Therefore, in essence, the Sabarimala case is a test case not only for freedom of religion and women’s rights but also for constitutional interpretation. It presents to the court an exemplary opportunity for an alternative reading of the Constitution. If the court indeed reads Article 17 to have a wider meaning, it will signal a new era of transformative constitutionalism in Indian jurisprudence.

Thulasi K. Raj is a lawyer in the Kerala High Court

How dams can control floods

There should be space for greater storage of water in reservoirs before the onset of monsoon

In the aftermath of any tragedy, people struggle to comprehend what happened and how to cope. Kerala is no different. With the floodwaters finally receding, a number of experts and politicians have stated various possible reasons for the tragedy. Some have cited ill-thought-out development plans that have affected the sustainability of the Western Ghats, arguing that without thoughtful conservation, this was a tragedy waiting to happen. Some have said that the rainfall was unprecedented. Some others have said that Kochi airport was bound to flood given that it has been built on fields and wetlands adjacent to the Periyar river which swelled to dangerous levels during the floods. And some have blamed dams, which were all opened when they were nearly full, causing heavy floods downstream and greatly affecting the lives of the people there. While criticism and suggestions are natural after a tragedy of this magnitude, we should learn lessons from the experience. The question is, how do we avoid or minimise destruction after such an event?

The purpose of dams

The world over, dams are constructed mainly for the purposes of irrigation, power generation, and flood control. While the first two roles are acknowledged, the role of dams in flood control has always been underestimated. It is unfortunate that in both irrigation and hydel projects, flood control is completely ignored. Authorities always look to store the maximum amount of water in reservoirs during the monsoon season, which is then used for irrigation and generation of electricity during the summer months. It is an internationally accepted practice that the water level of a reservoir should be kept below a certain level before the onset of the monsoon season. This is so that when the monsoon rains come, there is space to store the excess rainwater and also so that water can be released in a regulated manner, thus preventing floods downstream when there is heavy inflow to the dams. In May, Thailand, for instance, wisely brought down the water level in the dams in the country to below 60% of the storing capacity before the rainy season.

However, it is unfortunate that the maximum amount of water is stored in reservoirs even before the close of the monsoon, only to ensure greater electricity generation and irrigation. How the reservoir water was managed in the dams prior to the Kerala floods requires no explanation. While earlier too there was no practice of keeping space for greater storage of water, rainfall has never been as torrential as it was this year. Hence, there were no floods either. It is difficult to predict what will happen during the ensuing northeast monsoon in Kerala in case of heavy inflow. Whatever be the extra quantity of electricity produced and area of land irrigated because of the risky storage of water in our dams, that cannot compensate for the loss of human lives, infrastructure and agricultural land. Nor can the agony caused by such destruction be compensated for. The estimated loss to the State runs into thousands of crores. It will take years to rebuild Kerala.

Space in reservoirs

In view of all these problems and to ensure that the flood control purpose of dams is met, it is important that at least 30% of the storage capacity of dams be kept free before the monsoon. While simultaneously allowing discharge of water, it is possible to increase storage slowly as the monsoon progresses. Kerala receives rainfall mainly during the southwest monsoon (June-September) and northeast monsoon (October-November). These rains are controlled by winds that carry clouds from the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Atmospheric depression that controls wind movement cannot be predicted months in advance. The meteorological department can predict rains or cyclones only a few days in advance. Therefore, keeping space in reservoirs before the monsoon begins must be done whether or not there are heavy rains, as no State can afford to take risks in the manner that Kerala did.

Some argue against the existence of dams, but it is an irrefutable fact that dams are useful. We need them for irrigation and electricity generation. However, even if the monsoons fail and dams fall short of water and there is a shortfall in electricity generation, this is not a loss compared to the possible loss of lives in the event of a flood of this magnitude.

Ensuring thoughtful policies

It is time for the government and the public to formulate water management policies for reservoirs in such a manner that dams are used to control floods, not cause them. In 2015, hydropower generation was only 16.6% of the world’s total electricity production. The tendency to hold the maximum amount of water in our reservoirs while ignoring the high risk involved in doing so can be attributed to our over-dependence on hydel projects to produce electricity. Therefore, it is time to think of non-conventional sources for electricity generation such as solar, wind and tidal power. The practice of solar power generation in Kochi airport can be copied in similar large-scale projects by other government agencies. The public too should be encouraged to adopt the practice of solar power generation. This will greatly reduce our dependence on dams for power generation.

It is also crucial to follow good reservoir water management policies. At present, the task of dam and water management is vested with the Public Works Department, the Electricity Board, and the Irrigation Department. Even in normal conditions, given contradictory opinions from various departments, it is difficult to implement decisions. Hence, the State Dam Security Authority, if competent, should be entrusted with the task of water management in reservoirs and with taking decisions in emergency situations.

The State government, the State Dam Security Authority and the National Water Commission should all be prepared to take bold decisions together on water management so that there are no such devastating floods in the future. If this happens, we hopefully won’t see another day where we rue decisions of the past that are causing untold suffering to millions in the present.

Mathew Abraham is a Principal Scientist (retired) from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research

Rewriting history

Why is Akbar being called the new age Aurangzeb?

Of Saffron Flags and Skullcaps: Hindutva, Muslim Identity and the Idea of India

Ziya Us Salam



We live in an age when we appear to be forgetting the unifying message of “Saare Jahan Se Achcha”, powerful words penned by Muhammad Iqbal. Is there an exclusionary politics at play leading to the creation of a world of ‘us’ and ‘them’? Of Saffron Flags and Skullcaps traces the growth of the Hindutva ideology from the time of Veer Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar to contemporary times, and describes how the Muslim community in India is now undergoing a churning within. An excerpt:

None of us has ever met Akbar. All of us know him well though. After all, he was Akbar the Great, the man who gave us a stable administration for close to 50 years — it was a no mean accomplishment considering [that] before him, north India had at least five rulers in 25 years, with wars for conquest as also succession being a frequent phenomenon. Through a mix of military prowess and acumen, Akbar brought stability at the top. Having defeated the top Rajput kings, including Rana Pratap, he brought the Rajputs virtually into the ruling class through matrimonial alliances with them. A man way ahead of his times, Akbar respected each individual’s right to practise any faith.

Even marriage to the emperor did not mean a change of religion for Rajput women. Of course, he sought to give the nation a glue-like concept of Deen-e-Ilahi, a new religion incorporating concepts from all religions. A contemporary of Akbar, Fr Monserrate, a Jesuit, opined that by tolerating all faiths, Akbar was dismissing all religions. He was a hero none could hate.

Portrait of Akbar

Fortunate are we who were told these realities of a shared past in our school days. It is courtesy our NCERT books that all Indians have a ready and enviable portrait of Akbar. Akbar was always held at par with the best. And an expression ‘Akbar the Great’ is indelibly written on our mind, much like ‘Ashoka the Great’. The next generation, though, may not be as fortunate. Efforts are under way to project Akbar as a diminutive ruler who lost the Battle of Haldighati to Rana Pratap. In turn, Rana Pratap is being hailed as the man who inspired the revolutionaries of 1857! Not just that. All accomplishments of Akbar are being questioned in a sinister manner.

In early 2017, an attempt was made to rename Akbar’s Fort in Ajmer as just Ajmer Fort by erasing his name from the gate of the fort. That it went against what the Gazette of India said seemed to matter little. Within no time, a new blue board was put up at the fort without a mention of Akbar. The fort, it seems, sprouted after rainfall in monsoon. If we believe Abul Fazl, the structures within the fort were constructed in 1570. It remained an important fort under Jahangir who also stayed there for long periods as Prince Salim.

Turning a story on its head

Not content with rewriting the Akbar ka Quila story, the Hindutva brigade got support from dubious historians to turn the good old Battle of Haldighati story on its head. Generations of students have talked of the valour of the Rajput king Rana Pratap, yet always concluded that for all his bravery, Rana Pratap lost the Battle of Haldighati to the Mughals. Importantly, Akbar is said to have stayed away from the battle himself, leaving the responsibility to Rajputs such as Man Singh. An attempt is being made by the Rajasthan government to rewrite textbooks where Rana Pratap, not Akbar, is declared the winner of Haldighati. That the claim flies in the face of historical evidence matters not a dot; it is perception rather than reality which matters. Akbar is the new age Aurangzeb — a man dubbed an invader by none other than the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath. Of course, the fact that Akbar was born in Amarkot was considered superfluous to the argument.

Undermining Akbar’s contribution

These attempts to project Akbar in a sad state are not new. For the past four years, constant efforts have been made to belittle his contribution to the country. In May 2016, a proposal was aired to rename Akbar Road in New Delhi as Maharana Pratap Road. What was said was obvious — give the Rajputs a place of honour; what was left unsaid was critical and objectionable — the greatest of Mughals had no business having a road named after him in Delhi, which was once an important component of his empire.

The Indian government seems keen to undermine the contribution of Akbar towards nation-building and indeed project him as the New Age Aurangzeb.

Excerpted with permission from Sage

Toxic silence

There is an urgent need for scientists to think about sexual harassment as a systemic hazard

On August 20 and 21, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, jointly held a discussion meeting for scientists and science journalists. The first of its kind in recent times, the meeting witnessed lively discussions on many subjects. Among the topics discussed were reports on sexual harassment within labs and research institutes.

Perhaps it was unsurprising that there were few responses to the introduction of this topic by journalists, as the issue is shrouded in silence not just within the scientific establishment but in several other sectors as well. There have been multiple reports of sexual harassment cases in the regional media and news portals — admirably thorough at times — such as recently on cases at S.N. Bose Centre, Kolkata, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Seeking to collect data and analyse the problem in an article, The Hindu sent out a questionnaire to nearly half of the 19 autonomous research institutes under the Department of Science and Technology, and the 44 CSIR labs, on sexual harassment. The questions were worded carefully and did not ask the institute to reveal the identities of any person. It was also suggested that questions that respondents considered difficult or impossible to answer be left out. The result was worse than expected. Despite repeated phone calls and prompts, only five institutions responded, and that too in such an obscure manner as to make the reply useless. For instance, to the question “Were the members of the Internal Complaints Committee elected or nominated?” the reply was, “As per the government rules.” The intention of the survey was not to place any institution in a spot — it was to get a holistic understanding of the problem and write an analytical piece on it. But the response put paid to this intention.

There is a clause in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which says that the numbers must be reported in the annual report of institutions and handed over to the district officer. It is doubtful whether this is being done, especially because many people are unaware of this clause. At a broad level there is little doubt that the Act needs to be debated in greater depth so that legal experts can express thoughts on potential improvements. Without more discussion, the backlash on victims is likely to continue, and this distinctly favours the perpetrator.

There is an urgent need for scientists to think about this problem holistically and not just as isolated cases that happen in their own institutes or elsewhere. This is because, despite the problem’s wide reach, scientists have not yet recognised it as a systemic hazard. Greater involvement of those outside the scientific fraternity, including the media, can also help substantiate the conversation.

The writer covers science for The Hindu